According to the Constitution, the President, the Vice President and all civil officers can be removed from office by impeachment and conviction. The House of Representatives brings impeachment (charges) which are passed by a simple majorityand the Senate then has the sole right to judge the accused. Conviction requires a two-thirds majority of the Senate. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides over the Senate when a President is impeached..
A Background on Impeachment, by Marc Schulman
The question of whether the chief executive of the United States or any other officers could be removed was debated extensively at the constitutional convention. Impeachment was part of the Virginia Plan. That plan called for the impeachment or the removal of officials by the federal judiciary. The New Jersey plan also included an option of impeachment- but in that case, it was to be voted by the lower house of Congress and then ratified by the governors. It was Alexander Hamilton who recommended the system that we have today that the lower house charges an officers with an impeachable offense and the upper house votes on whether to convict or not.
At the convention, the idea of impeachment was opposed by some of the delegates. Gouverneur Morris feared that if impeachment was part of the constitution than the chief executive would be beholden to that branch of government that could impeach him.
James Madison however strongly supported including impeachment as part of the constitution. He stated that the impeachment clause was "indispensable . . . for defending the Community [against] the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate.”
Benjamin Franklin spoke up in support of impeachment saying that if a leader “rendered himself obnoxious,” Without impeachment, according to Franklin citizens’ only recourse was assassination, which would leave the leader “not only deprived of his life but of the opportunity of vindicating his character.”
George Mason questioned whether any man should be above the law. Morris changed his mind and the impeachment clause was included in the draft of the constitution. By the time the final draft of the constitution was concluded the details were worked out. The lower house- the house of representatives would vote to impeach- lay out the charges, and then the upper house by a 2/3 vote could vote to convict.
During the arguments to support the ratification of the constitution Hamilton made it clear how important he considered impeachment as a method of limiting the power of the President. He wrote in Federalist 77:
We have now completed a survey of the structure and powers of the executive department, which, I have endeavored to show, combines, as far as republican principles will admit, all the requisites to energy. The remaining inquiry is: Does it also combine the requisites to safety, in a republican sense, a due dependence on the people, a due responsibility? The answer to this question has been anticipated in the investigation of its other characteristics, and is satisfactorily deducible from these circumstances; from the election of the President once in four years by persons immediately chosen by the people for that purpose; and from his being at all times liable to impeachment, trial, dismission from office, incapacity to serve in any other, and to forfeiture of life and estate by subsequent prosecution in the common course of law. But these precautions, great as they are, are not the only ones which the plan of the convention has provided in favor of the public security. In the only instances in which the abuse of the executive authority was materially to be feared, the Chief Magistrate of the United States would, by that plan, be subjected to the control of a branch of the legislative body. What more could be desired by an enlightened and reasonable people desire? PUBLIUS.
Hamilton was well aware of how political the issue of could become.
He wrote in Federalist 39:
A well-constituted court for the trial of impeachments is an object not more to be desired than difficult to be obtained in a government wholly elective. The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself. The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt. The delicacy and magnitude of a trust which so deeply concerns the political reputation and existence of every man engaged in the administration of public affairs, speak for themselves. The difficulty of placing it rightly, in a government resting entirely on the basis of periodical elections, will as readily be perceived, when it is considered that the most conspicuous characters in it will, from that circumstance, be too often the leaders or the tools of the most cunning or the most numerous faction, and on this account, can hardly be expected to possess the requisite neutrality towards those whose conduct may be the subject of scrutiny.
When we think of impeachment we think of impeaching the President, but in fact, impeachment has been used 19 times by the House of Representatives. In those 19 cases, the Senate has convicted 8 of those charged and removed them from office.
The first person to be impeached was Senator William Blount of Tennessee. He was accused of plotting with Great Britain to allow them to seize Spanish Florida. The charges were dismissed by the Senate as he had been expelled from the Senate before the start of the trial. Judge John Pickering of the US District Court of New Hampshire became the first person impeached and convicted in 1804 of being drunk on the bench and unlawfully handling of property cases.
In the most recent case on December 8, 2010, G Thomas Porteous a district judge for the Eastern District of Louisiana was found guilty of accepted bribes and making false statements under the threat of perjury.
Two Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton have in fact been impeached and none removed from office. A third Richard Nixon would no doubt have been impeached in most likely removed but for the fact that he resigned.
In the case of the first President impeached Andrew Johnson the impeachment was, in fact, a part of a larger struggle between Andrew Johnson the southerner governor who found himself President with the assassination of Lincoln in conflict with Republicans in Congress who wanted to defend African American rights vigorously in the South under reconstruction. The Secretary of War was William Stanton a Lincoln appointment who would fulfill the will of Congress. Johnson wanted to replace him but Congress passed the Tenure of office act which stated that the President could not unilaterally fire an official that Congress had confirmed to the office. Johnson violated the law and fired Stanton. The House then voted to impeach him for violating the law. The Senate, however, was one vote short of the two-thirds needed to convict.
President Nixon would have been impeached if he had not resigned. The House Judiciary Committee had held extensive hearings on the Watergate Breakin of the Democratic National Committee and the subsequent coverup. The Committee had drawn up articles of impeachment and were about to bring them to a vote in the House of Representatives when senior Republicans met with President Nixon and told him that the votes would be there to impeach and convict him. Nixon decided to resign rather than face impeachment.
President Clinton was impeached on the charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. The decision to impeach Clinton came after Independent Counsel Ken Starr turned over a report to the House Judiciary Committee. In the report, Clinton was accused of lying to the grand jury that was investigating the Paula Jones case against President Clinton by lying as to whether he had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky an intern at the White House. The house voted which was controlled by the Republicans voted in favor of two of the four articles. However, only 50 Senators voted on February 9, 1999, in favor of removal far short of the 67 needed for a two-thirds vote.